HC Deb 09 January 2003 vol 397 cc374-8

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That— (1) Standing Order No. 57 (Presentation and first reading) be amended, by leaving out paragraph (3); (2) The following Standing Order (Bills brought from the Lords) be made: '57A.—(1) If a Member informs the Clerks at the Table of his intention to take charge of a bill which has been brought from the Lords, the bill shall be deemed to have been read the first time on the day on which the Member so informs the Clerks, and to have been ordered to be read a second time on such day as he shall appoint, and shall be recorded in the Journal of the House as having been read the first time and ordered to be read a second time on the day so appointed, and shall be ordered to be printed. (2) If a public bill is passed by the Lords and carried to the office of the Clerk of the House at a time when this House is not sitting, then, provided that a Member shall have notified the Clerks at the Table, in writing, of his intention to take charge of the bill— (a) the Clerk of the House shall arrange for the printing and circulation of copies of the bill, and (b) the bill shall be recorded in the Journal of the House as having been read the first time on the next sitting day and as having been ordered to be printed pursuant to this standing order and to be read a second time on such day as the Member shall have appointed.'; and (3) Standing Order No. 78 (Lords amendments) be amended as follows: Line 1, after 'bills', insert 'and Lords reasons'; Line 3, at end insert 'and the provisions of S.O. No. 57A (Bills brought from the Lords) shall apply to the appointment of consideration and the printing of Lords amendments and reasons as they apply to the appointment of second reading and the printing of bills brought from the House of Lords'; and Line 5, after 'bills', insert 'or Lords reasons'.—[Mr. Caplin.]

3.56 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I apologise for bringing back to the House a matter that I raised earlier on a point of order. In apologising to the Minister, I should perhaps explain that we were made fully aware of the potential defect in the motion only this afternoon.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), our Chief Whip, has been seeking enlightenment from various parts of the House for the past 48 hours or so, and he has had considerable difficulty in finding the author of the motion. We understand that it has been at the bottom of a drawer for some time, but its original author has, at long last, been discovered today. He—I think the author is a he—has acknowledged that there is a potential lacuna, which my hon. Friend will refer to in more detail in a moment.

I have been a Member of the House long enough to be immediately suspicious whenever anybody from the Government Whips Office tells me that something is a mere technicality and that we need take no notice whatever of it. In such circumstances, we thought that we should look carefully at the issue. Initially, we thought that there was a potential relevance to the issue of ping-pong between the two Houses, but that does not seem to be the real problem. Nevertheless, there is a defect.

It seems to me that a point of principle is involved. If any Member, whether a Back Bencher or a Front Bencher, identifies a possible problem with any motion brought before the House, it is their responsibility to raise it in the House before that motion goes through so that we can deal with it there and then, rather than wait for another occasion on which to try to correct it.

I hope that the Minister's response to this brief debate indicates that he is prepared to take the motion back for further consideration in the light of the issues that we have raised with the House this afternoon and the misgiving of the author in the Clerk's Department that it may not be as watertight as he originally intended. If he does so, there will be no need to divide the House. If not, we must deal with the point of principle. We shall listen carefully to his assurances to see whether a Division is necessary.

I must tell the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who remains on the Front Bench, that the shadow deputy Leader of the House has indicated that he shares our misgivings, so no doubt he would join us in the Lobby if that became necessary. Following those few words, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove may catch your eye.

3.58 pm
Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

The context for the debate is the change to the sitting hours of the House, as there will be more occasions on which a sitting of the House of Lords continues beyond a sitting of this House. It has therefore been thought fit to introduce a change to our Standing Orders such that when a Bill has completed its passage through the House of Lords and is returning to this House, it would not be necessary for this House to remain sitting to receive it at the close of business.

The motion, apart from continuing the existing procedure, albeit with a different numbering, would introduce a new procedure to, in effect, allow the House to be deemed to be sitting so that a Bill coming from the House of Lords could be carried straightforwardly and picked up by a Member of this House.

We have no problem with the principle or the theory of a change in our Standing Orders that we consider practical and sensible in the light of the change in our arrangements generally, but we see a difficulty in the proposed process. Normally, when a Bill has completed its progress in the House of Lords it is physically brought to this House and laid on the Table, at which point a Member can take it up. If this House is not sitting, however, there is no point at which a Member can take up a Bill.

Paragraph (2) of the proposed new Standing Order, in paragraph (2) of the motion, states: If a public bill is passed by the Lords and carried to the office of the Clerk of the House at a time when this House is not sitting, then, provided that a Member shall have notified the Clerks at the Table, in writing, of his intention to take charge of the bill", and so forth. The key words are: provided that a Member shall have notified the Clerks at the Table, in writing, of his intention to take charge of the bill". That seems perfectly sensible, until we ask when the Clerks can be notified of that intention. There is no start date, and no end date. In the case of our normal procedures, the start date is clear: it is the day on which the Bill has been laid on the Table when the House of Commons is in session.

Today I asked the motion's original author whether there would be anything to prevent me from submitting to the Clerk of the House some 36 letters covering each of the Bills that the Government are taking through the House of Lords and declaring my intention of taking them up when they reach this House. If I wrote the letters today or tomorrow, I would be the first person to submit such a request and, according to the motion, would therefore appear to have absolute priority. He quite properly told me that all Standing Orders are subject to interpretation by Mr. Speaker; he also told me that such matters must be interpreted with common sense.

I fully accept both those points. Clearly our business could not proceed solely on the basis of the literal interpretation of every Standing Order, and common sense must indeed be brought to bear. Let us suppose, however, that I did not write my 36 letters tonight. Later in the Session, also on a Thursday and perhaps at about this time of day, it might become clear that our business would end before 6 pm, and also that a Bill would emerge from the Lords later than 6 pm. Would it be in order for me to give a letter to the Clerk at this point, in anticipation of that Bill's arrival, or would I have to wait for the moment at which the Bill was passed in the Lords? Or is there some other start date? I have told the draftsmen, and the Clerk of Legislation—with whom I had a discussion today—that we are faced with the possibility of a race without a starting line or a starting time.

It could be argued that we can leave all these matters to the rulings of Mr. Speaker, and the common sense and good judgment of the House. Although I have no objection to that in principle, I think it unfortunate that, in changing our Standing Orders positively and introducing a new procedure, we may also introduce a gap—a hole—in the evidence needed for an interpretation.

In the light of this debate, the Minister may want to agree to withdrawing the motion, and to taking a second look at the two lines in paragraph 2(2) stating that a Member shall have notified the Clerks at the Table, in writing". We need a starting moment for such submissions.

This is not an entirely academic point. The House will undoubtedly be aware that there have been occasions when it has been a matter of contention as to who should pick up a Bill from the other place and who should proceed with it. Indeed, it has sometimes been a matter of competition as to who gets to the Table first to take the Bill up. Well, we understand the procedures of this place, and earlier this week there was an example of that kind of competitive approach to the Clerks at the Table which has yet to be fully resolved. I want to make it clear that that process is understood and is acceptable when the House is sitting, but when it is not, how does that competition find effect? How is priority given to one Member over another, where such competition exists?

In the light of advice that I received from the Clerk of Legislation, of discussions with the original drafter of this motion, and of points that have been made in the House, I hope that the Government will agree to withdrawing this motion, so that a second look can be taken and a simple and straightforward tweaking of the wording can be made, which would be for the good order and best conduct of this House.

4.6 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Ben Bradshaw)

I am very grateful to the hon. Members for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) and for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) for raising this matter earlier in a point of order, because that gave me the chance to consult with my officials and the Clerks of the House. I think that the House agrees that this is a sensible motion in principle. It deals with the strange anomaly that, until now, the House has been unable to receive Lords messages when it is not sitting. That contrasts with the other place, which can do the reverse.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove has identified a potential problem, which I shall briefly describe as the possibility of a hostile takeover of a private Member's Bill coming from the other place. Following conversations with my own officials and, through them, with the Clerks of this place, it has become clear that the author of the motion does not in fact consider it defective. It is true that he has identified a potential problem, but I hope that, in the light of what I am about to say, the hon. Gentleman will feel able to support the motion.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, but there are a couple of caveats. First, the provision will apply only if a Lords message arrives when the House is not sitting—a point that is obvious to all of us. Secondly, it is already possible that two or more Members might vie to take up a Bill arriving from the Lords, so the theoretical problem already exists. The hon. Gentleman's prime concern appeared to be that the Standing Order applies no starting date for a notice in writing of a Member's taking up a Bill. The House authorities assure me that they would not accept notice way in advance in the manner that he suggested, nor would they accept any attempt to set down a Bill for Second Reading at a far off date—the other hypothetical example suggested by the hon. Gentleman.

I should say in all honesty that no Standing Order in this place is utterly safe from some kind of abuse, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members that, were problems to emerge in practice as a result of this motion, we would make changes. In the light of those assurances, I hope that he and other hon. Members will feel able to support the motion. I commend it to the House.

Mr. Stunell


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. If the Minister has sat down he cannot take an intervention, and the hon. Gentleman is not allowed to speak again.

Question put and agreed to.

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